In 1858 when Abraham Lincoln gave a speech, saying a house divided against itself cannot stand, he was not President, or even running for president. Lincoln gave this speech after he had just accepted the Republican nomination for state senator of Illinois. At the time, the United States was split on what the future of the country looked like, with a delicate balance between slave and free, urban and rural, working-class and wealthy, and of course black and white.
Amazingly, we have managed to recreate most of these same divisions over the past decade. But now, these divisions are created and broadcasted and amplified within our own homes and social media pages and then taken advantage of by our media and politicians. In many of our minds, our fellow Americans have become the enemy.
The question in my mind this summer has been how can a democracy properly function if the other side is actively working to sabotage the country? How can the institutions of a republic last if the people themselves no longer trust the government has their best interest in mind? These attitudes are a recipe for extreme cynicism and distrust, it’s in these spaces politicians like Donald Trump thrive.
As citizens, we are responsible for this, but additionally responsible are the media, politicians, and institutions who gave us a reason to doubt their motives. It’s difficult to trust one’s federal government when President Trump sends federal troops into the city of Portland without state permission, using excessive force and taking protesters away in unmarked mini-vans with Florida license plates. It’s difficult to trust our police system when the killers of Breonna Taylor will never face punishment for their fatal mistakes. It’s difficult to trust the rule of law when children are separated from their parents at our southern border for months or years, or when parents are ripped away from their children by ICE agents.
Additionally, the federal governments completely inept failings to contain and respond to the Corona Virus and adequately respond to the tremendous financial burden many Americans and business are facing this year only weaken this sense of trust. The single $1,200 checks delivered in April ran out months ago, and the disfunction on the creation of a second relief package does little to inspire the American people with confidence.
Somehow after all of this, many Americans are still surprised when they hear those advocating “defund the police” or defunding other institutions like the Department of Homeland Security. When the laws themselves are the problem, how could we expect our citizens to trust their safety and wellbeing is protected?
Oppositely, the incessant bashing of Mr. Trump on late-night television and across the media spectrum continues to reinforce his own theory of his persecution. Or the fact that a candidate on a major party ticket would refer to millions of Americans as a “basket of deplorables,” is the type of attitude that could lead to the end of a functioning democracy. Huntington has seen this attitude on full display with the recent suspension of a Marshall professor, who was recorded making offensive remarks about Trump supporters, which was quickly circulated around conservative media. Anyone with any cognitive function left can criticize the stupid and offensive things Mr. Trump says and tweets on their own, or the extremist and sometimes violent coalitions that support him. Both sides of the American political spectrum can lay some claim to the violent clashes seen in our cities, and the long-lasting damage given to the very institutions that keep our democracy functional.
The solutions, if there are any, remain unclear to me. Depending on who you ask, Americans great divisions could be blamed on the CEOs of social media companies, President Trump, the rapid rise in popularity of dangerous conspiracy theories, or the intentional spread of misinformation from foreign adversaries including Russia. It seems to be a perfect storm of all of these, which results in extreme hyper-partisanship. If our nation’s founders were concerned about potential partisanship and warned against it, I could not even imagine the fear they would have over the current future of the United States.